i-cdfebbe63ecc1f31b5d884ff5a86e115-Modern judge circle Igelboda school.jpg

Last year part of my daughter’s schoolyard was landscaped and fitted with new entertainments. The landscapers also built a stone circle right next to her classroom. (I attended that school myself in 1982-85. The building in the background was the council dentistry clinic where I was fitted with braces.)

Structures like these are known as domarringar, “judge circles”, in Swedish archaeology. They’re Early Iron Age grave superstructures dating from c. 500 BC to AD 500, each usually with a cremation urn buried somewhere inside the circle. The term “judge circle” comes from recent folklore (or antiquarian speculation?), which held that judicial assemblies once convened at sites like these, with one member sitting on each stone. I don’t know how old that idea is.

A number of details show that the judge circle at school doesn’t belong to their main period of construction. Firstly, when (rarely) there is a central stone in the Iron Age structures, it’s just one, not two. Secondly, while the Iron Age ones are pretty much perfectly circular and were probably drawn up with a central pole and a rope, the one at school is irregularly oval in outline. And finally, with twelve stones in the circle, the one at school doesn’t conform to Early Iron Age numerology.

Intact Iron Age judge circles have 7, 9, 11, 2*7, 2*9 or 2*11 stones. The same numbers recur in the knobs on amulet rings that women in certain regions wore in the 5th and 6th centuries. There’s at least one case where an amulet ring has been found in a judge-circle burial. The most common number of knobs is nine, and I’ve suggested that it might have something to do with the months of pregnancy.

Archaeology aside, Juniorette tells me that the school stone circle is quite popular, as can be seen from the absence of turf inside the circle. She describes three different games you play with it according to the number of available participants. One is named “The Singing Giant”.

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Comments

  1. #1 abb3w
    May 11, 2010

    Perhaps the 7 refers to the number of months required for a new bride’s first pregnancy? =)

    (That doesn’t help explain the 11s, however.)

  2. #2 Martin R
    May 11, 2010

    I’ve heard tell that in rural Sweden not long ago, couples from landowning families wouldn’t get married until the woman was pregnant. Both of the prospective spouses needed to know that their union would be fertile.

  3. #3 codero
    May 11, 2010

    Interesting, but perhaps a teensy bit pointless – any 2008 picture of the schoolyard would easily reveal the structure to be recent.

    Were they actually trying to recreate an EIA burial site, or is it just someone’s idea of a rock garden? Do unemployed archaeologists frequently move on to landscape gardening? When I was young, I was told stories about medical doctors collecting the trash in Stockholm…

  4. #4 Martin R
    May 11, 2010

    Wait 2000 years, and most likely a 2008 picture of the schoolyard will be hard to come by. But the judge circle has every chance of surviving.

    I don’t know if the landscapers were consciously copying the prehistoric monument type.

  5. #5 jovain
    May 11, 2010

    But isn’t pregnancy roughly 10 lunar months? Lunar calendar is 12-13 months/year and that’s what all Scandinavians (including us Finns) used before Christianity, right???

  6. #6 Phillip IV
    May 11, 2010

    The landscapers also built a stone circle right next to her classroom.

    It’s an old tradition. When a member of the Solemn Brotherhood of Landscapers dies in the line of duty, he’s put to rest at the very spot he fell, in the way learned from the fathers.

    OK, or perhaps I made that up.

  7. #7 codero
    May 11, 2010

    a 2008 picture of the schoolyard will be hard to come by

    True, but will detailed knowledge of Iron Age sites still be easy to come by 2000 years hence? Let’s wait and see.

    the judge circle has every chance of surviving

    That would be a lot more likely if mankind were wiped out tomorrow. Hope it doesn’t happen…

  8. #8 Martin R
    May 11, 2010

    Jovain, good point! A standard human pregnancy lasts for 40 weeks. A lunar month is 29.5 days. A pregnancy thus lasts for 9.5 lunar months.

    Phillip, I guess that explains the smell around that stone circle.

    Codero, Iron Age cemeteries are extremely abundant in Sweden and very durable. Unless they all get built over with urban sprawl, there will be plenty of them left 2000 years from now. And Sweden’s population would be shrinking fast if it weren’t for immigration.